Travelling home: Pleasures and phobias

Published 5 January 2016 / By COMPAS Communications

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I take quite a lot of pleasure in the journey home to Italy for Christmas. The simple fact of travelling, of leaving or returning to one’s home, lends itself to introspection and quiet reflection. Often, events en route – such as unavoidable eavesdropping – will direct this contemplation, or even demand it. This year, it was the latter, as one of the conversations I happened to overhear was on the topic of the Paris attacks. It all started off relatively peacefully between my fellow travellers, with a discussion on the alienation of young Muslims in France, and the French flags adopted as profile photos on Facebook following the Paris shootings. It was then that someone pointed out that the attacks in the French capital were a clear indication that Muslims were, ultimately, very different from “us” white, Italian Catholics. “They” had little desire to integrate, were aggressive in their demands, and arrogant in their feelings of superiority. Their presence posed a challenge to our identity. Most recently, for example, they were calling for the removal of crucifixes from the walls of our primary schools, demanding that we accommodate them. How dare they? Several others contradicted the claim, suggesting that in fact many Muslims were European and not so dissimilar to “us”. When the generality of the statement was challenged the response was: “but surely we need to generalise in order to make sense of the world.”

Although commonplace, this exchange raised some of the questions with which I have been grappling in my book project on Somali Muslim women in Britain. In Italy these views are perhaps unsurprising given that mainstream media coverage on Muslims is often stereotypical and at times racialized. The centre-right “liberal” newspaper, Libero, in the aftermath of the attacks published “Islamici bastardi” (Islamic bastards) as its headline the following day. In 2009 the European court of human rights’ ruling that crucifixes hanging in classrooms violated religious and educational freedoms caused uproar from politicians and commentators from across the political spectrum. I remember sitting at Christmas mass that year listening to the local parish priest’s advice to challenge “their” demands, and keep our crucifixes on our walls.

This “us and them” narrative, and the essentialization and racialization of Muslims, is not unique to Italy. In the UK it has manifested itself in extreme right-wing Islamophobic rhetoric, but also, I would argue, through the “backlash” against multiculturalism and calls for greater social cohesion and a stronger sense of national identity. As elsewhere in Europe, over the last decade, politicians and media pundits have promoted a “post-multicultural” approach, and reasserted ideas of integration, cohesion, and common values (Vertovec 2010). At the forefront of these debates have been Muslims’ supposed “difference” and their place within Britain, as well as a concern with the “divisive character” of multiculturalism which separates communities, undermines social cohesion, and fractures national identity (Grillo 2007: 985). For example, in The British Dream David Goodhart (2014) suggests that policies promoting “separatist multiculturalism” have encouraged many Muslims in Britain to lead parallel lives detached from those of the mainstream, posing a threat Britain’s national cohesion. Appeals for a stronger national identity are inherently juxtaposed to an abject “other” who exists in opposition to “our values” of freedom, choice and equality, and threatens “our identity”.

My fellow traveller suggested that we needed to generalise in order to make sense of difference. But the generalisation that was made was not a neutral or objective one (although it was presented as such), but one all too often rehearsed in these mainstream accounts about Islam and national belonging. At the same time, the comment invited a reflection on the productive effects of using an abstract, general language of values. In a book on 19th century liberal thought and its emergence in conjunction with empire, Mehta (1999) argues that liberal notions of reason, freedom, individuality and progress were viewed by liberal theorists as universal arbiters of the significance of different forms of life in the colonies. The “other” was viewed as an abstraction—“as the embodiment of an abstract type that is then judged, reformed, and often assessed as moribund in his extant situation” by reference to a set of abstract ideals (1999: 25). “Modern liberalism takes the common, the general, the universal as the very basis of an ethical and political point of view” (ibid 1999: 26) Drawing on Simmel’s notion of the stranger Mehta argues that this abstract universal language not only masks its origins within a European tradition, but has the effect of emphasising difference, remoteness and strangeness. As Simmel notes:

“For a stranger to a country, the city, the race, and so on, what is stressed is again nothing individual, but alien origin, a quality which he has, or could have, in common with many other strangers. For this reason strangers are not really perceived as individuals, but strangers of a certain type. The remoteness is no less general than their nearness." (cited in Mehta 1999:24)

In a similar way, the language of universal values of freedom, democracy and equality, evokes the Muslim “other” as she or he who is different, “backwards”, determined and constrained by culture, and hence opposed to liberal values. A liberal narrative of abstract rights, responsibilities and values—encapsulated in the notion of Britishness—turns the Muslim “other” into a stranger. It emphasises a generalised notion of difference by viewing the other as an “abstract type”. At the same time, as Mehta also points out, claims to universality are underpinned by – yet able to mask – particularist European traditions. Universal values are derived from a British liberal tradition, and employed to advocate a particularist national identity.

In sum, strangeness is all about perspective—how we view and determine who is close or remote. The stranger is in fact both close and far. He is from elsewhere but here to stay. As Michael Keith (2008: 194) reminds us, the figure of the stranger pushes us to reflect on “the way perspective confounds metric readings of proximity and distance… and the paradoxical nature of what is close by and simultaneously distant, or removed and yet proximate”. He points out how many of the debates that call for greater cohesion unfold at the national level. Within these discussions, a perceived social distance between different communities with supposedly conflicting values has been presented as conditioned by, and representative of, spatial distance. Social and spatial remoteness is produced through narratives of segregation and divided communities and abstract debates on national identity.

In my work I argue that strangeness is also produced in some of the academic and policy work on Muslims in Europe. For example, the Muslim subject tends to be studied through the lens of migration and integration, thereby reinforcing his/her foreignness. Or heightened forms of religiosity among Muslim youth are viewed as an import from abroad. Similarly, in countless media articles about the November shootings we hear about the lack of integration of Muslim youth in the Parisian suburbs; the fact that they are not really French is used to account for their radicalisation. In Italy, Muslims’ demands are seen as “aggressive” because they originate from elsewhere—they are not made by Italians.

Michael Keith (2008) contends that altering perspective, by focusing for example on the local urban scale, may shift our understanding of nearness and remoteness, familiarity and strangeness and offer a different imaginary of the city. In my work, I suggest not only shifting scale, but also placing the perspectives of Muslim women alongside those of scholars, politicians and commentators. I shift attention to the local—to how lives are lived—and to how the “strangeness” of Islam is produced through dominant debates around multiculturalism and national identity in Britain, and disrupted through everyday practices. My (rather unpleasurable) encounter with this traveller also reminded me that his views should also be taken seriously, studied ethnographically, and not dismissed as simply “Islamophobic”.


Goodhart, David (2014). The British Dream. Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration. London: Atlantic Books.

Grillo, Ralph. (2007). 'An Excess of Alterity? Debating Difference in a Multicultural Society.' Ethnic and Racial Studies 30 (6):979-998.

Keith, Michael. (2008). 'After the Cosmopolitan? New Geographies of Race and Racism.' In New Geographies of Race and Racism, edited by

Claire Dwyer and Caroline Bressey, 193-206. Abingdon, Oxon: Ashgate Publishing Group.

Simmel, Georg. (1971) On individuality and social forms: selected writings. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.

Mehta, Udhay Singh. (1999) Liberalism and Empire. A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Vertovec, Steven. (2010). 'Towards post-multiculturalism? Changing communities, conditions and contexts of diversity.' International social science journal 61 (199):83-95.

Giulia Liberatore is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at COMPAS. She is currently working on a manuscript entitled Muslim Somali British: religion, gender and shifting aspirations across generations.